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The Decorating Psychologist: A Tale for Designers and Our Clients



Going into client’s homes on a regular basis, I obviously encounter a lot of decorating and design problems. Often the homeowner has made poor remodeling choices, or has purchased the wrong sofa or color of paint or carpet and calls me to solve their problem.



It’s not a fun spot for either of us to be in because by this time the client is frustrated from spending too much time and money on a project that hasn’t delivered the satisfaction they’d hoped for. Their dreams (yes dreams, it’s a heady business) are dashed because they anticipated a happy outcome and instead, have to live with a less-than-ideal reminder on a daily basis.


It’s a challenge at this point because now I’m not just wearing my designer hat, I also have to don the heavy hat of psychologist. And though I might be up to the task of fixing the design related problem, it’s disappointing for me if I’m unable to change that person’s state of mind too.

from LONNY, above 

The American consumer has high expectations. Recently a client asked for my assistance with redecorating her living room and dining room. She needed all her furniture recovered, new window treatments, new dining room chairs, and pillows. I was to work around her existing paint, accessories, drapery hardware and antiques. It appeared to be an easy job except that the budget was unusually small. I put together two separate design schemes of fabrics, floor plans, and budgets. I came very close to the budget she had requested and even offered to do the work in stages.

from HOUZZ, above

The day of her presentation I arrived at her home with two CAD floor plans, twenty some fabric swatches put into two distinct color schemes, sketches, full estimates for each item to be covered or fabricated, two written purchasing time lines, and two separate budgets– one at the budget she’d requested and one, more realistic, slightly larger budget. 
The client liked the fabric selections but felt they weren’t exactly what she was looking for. Further, she was emphatic that she would purchase my fabrics at wholesale and assign me to oversee the more difficult task of fabrication. Unfortunately, most designers don’t work that way because the liabilities outweigh the commissions we receive on the labor portion of the transaction. In other words, commission on labor/fabrication is low and the commission from fabrics is needed to make it worthwhile. As well, fabric companies won’t sell at wholesale prices to non-designers. I would have to purchase the fabric for her (again assuming potential liability on the fabric) and give her my wholesale pricing.

So getting back to the fabric selections. As I said, she liked them but they weren’t quite what she was hoping for. She was disappointed and I felt awful. I wanted her to be happy with my services so I offered to do two more design schemes, gratis.
A few weeks later I went back to her home with all new fabrics (a four hour round trip) but the new schemes were met with the same response. She liked them but they weren’t exactly what she was looking for. I drove to her home a third time, this time charging her one hour’s design time, and brought with me two big bags of fabric swatches. We sat there on her sofa for an hour while I put together five more design schemes in front of her. Though these fabric schemes were really lovely, again we had no success.


As a last resort, we agreed to meet at the San Francisco Design Center and spend two hours looking at fabrics. Again, I charged her only one hour and was certain this would solve the problem. For the record, I don’t normally do this. Most people like my fabrics. I arrived twenty minutes early having allowed for San Francisco Bay Bridge traffic. Unfortunately, the client arrived thirty to forty minutes late and was visibly upset about it.


 from LONNY, above 

The day was off to a bad start for her. None of my cajoling would remedy her mood. Of the two large fabric showrooms we scoured, none of the fabrics would do. She left feeling angry and defeated. In this type of situation, there’s nothing you can do to make it right for the client. I was crushed that my extra efforts were not only unhelpful but also unappreciated. After two more efforts via phone, I received a curt note with her final payment, saying among other things that she would not be proceeding with the project.



It’s hard not to take those types of disappointments personally. She was my “charge” and I felt responsible for her disappointment. Looking at it with a few months perspective, I understand there was more going on with her than fabrics. Still I felt let down.

Fortunately, 95% of my clients are absolute gems. I feel I’m able to be of service to them. They are for the most part happy individuals, retired, living in beautiful homes, with low stress lifestyles. I love serving people who appreciate what I bring to their projects. We form personal relationships and some of my best friends today were clients ten or so years ago.

To avoid unrealistic expectations and create a successful design project that satisfies your own unique set of requirements, follow a few of my simple guidelines below. With or without a designer, keep these in mind as you embark on your projects to save yourself from potential disappointments like the client above.
Shiree’s Cheat Sheet

·        First and foremost, get clarity on what you can realistically accomplish, both financially and logistically. Set out a budget and buying plan by prioritizing what is most important. That way, you can defer the less important items till a later date.
·         If you don’t already have a defined style you can start by reading magazines like HouseBeautiful, Elle Décor, and Architectural Digest to gain some insight into your own taste. Or go to designer showcases such as the ones in San Francisco every spring. Save a picture file on ideas you particularly like.
·        Realize that your purchases are not going to make your life wonderful if it’s not already so. Design is meant to “enhance” an already happy life.
·        Designers can only modify their pricing so far. There are overhead and liability issues and many unforeseen contingencies. It’s not a simple job.

·        Use qualified individuals for fabrications. Get word of mouth recommendations and whenever possible see their work in person or via their portfolio.
·         DIY’ers, start a three ring binder with divider pages. Create tabs such as “List of Priorities”, “Receipts”, “Magazine Clippings”, “Drafts”, “Fabric Swatches”, “Work Orders”, and “Contracts”.
·        Take “before” photographs of your projects. Photographs show obvious areas in need of improvements more clearly than seeing a room in person. Take “after” shots and revel in your success.